I run a website for online giving and volunteering, but there’s nothing like getting in there on the ground!
Youth Speaks is active in helping youth get their voices heard. They train young people in writing, advocating, speaking out, and competing in poetry slams all over the nation. This is all geared towards making a change in society, all while building their skills and self-esteem.
What a joy to visit with Ashley Smiley and Gabriel Cortez at Youth Speaks. Ashley is the Production Manager and supervises facilitators and keeps the Youth Speaks shows running smoothly. Gabriel is a spoken word poet and teaching artist. There is such devotion by the staff. Gabriel’s pure heart shines through in his work!
Youth Speaks has a wide variety of programs. What I liked the most is it was not just about creativity, but the program also creates a long-term community, a life network.
They make a commitment to the children through all their chapters in life. While it starts off with training in writing, the children are also exposed to numerous events on living positively and making job connections. As Ashley said, “We create a true family.”
Here are some of the programs with which I was very impressed: First, they have After School Programs all over the U.S. They are in nearly every state and in multiple places across the Bay Area, including San Francisco, The Mission, Berkeley, and Oakland. In these after school programs they focus on writing.
Next, there is Open Mic. Open Mic allows people to practice their poetry and get up on stage. There is no grading system and no pressure. It is an opportunity for one to put forth his voice. What a great skill for anyone to learn, at anytime in life!
When participants feel ready, they can go into formal competitions. At each stage, one must have new original content, which is graded. With continued progress, one may be chosen to be a part of a team called Brave New Voices. Brave New Voices usually consists of five poetry creators who create three minute and thirty second long poems. There is a coach and the team goes to a national competition.
There is a clear way to express yourself in a low-pressure, supportive community. There is also a way to continue to ascend and become more advanced if you choose. I like this: It doesn’t put pressure on the kids, but shows them that there is a pathway to greater success if they want it.
Then, they really get into life. The annual event Life is Living features dance classes, sustainable foods, a petting zoo, and keynote speakers. The goal is to expose guests to all of the positive things in life; to show how you can live a life that is connected to the earth and doing good. It is an example of how to make choices in your day to day, such as choosing organic foods or composting.
Most impressive is their work with accomplished authors. Last summer Ashley worked with Anna Deavere Smith at some of the poetry competitions. They also work closely with the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
One of the most appealing aspects of Youth Speaks is its incredible balance of informality and elegance. You can simply take a class or you can participate in a celebration at the Opera House with high level authors and speakers. It is essential that our youth experience both of the following: 1) comfort and ease of involvement and 2) access to experiences that they would never have otherwise. If you have the former, then introducing the latter is much easier.
Youth Speaks opens up the children’s minds as to how special they are and what they can accomplish. They should be going to the Opera House just like everyone else. Let’s support them — go hear their voice!